Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands


Samantha Power / samantha@vueweekly.com


Calculating the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air is not something
many Edmontonians think to do. But Maureen and Dennis Chichak make
sure they check it at their home on a daily basis.

The Chichak home is located just outside of Fort Saskatchewan, in the
330 square kilometres known as the Industrial Heartland, and with
their neighbours having grown over three decades to include Shell,
Agrium and Dow, they’re regularly exposed to sulfur dioxide, benzene
and nitrogen dioxide.
And it’s about to get worse.

Located in the counties of Strathcona and Sturgeon, the Heartland
shares jurisdiction with the two counties plus the City of Fort
Saskatchewan and Lamont County. Industrial sites began to slowly
encroach on farmland in the 1970s during the last oil boom, making
Maureen and Dennis close neighbours with the Shell Scotford Upgrader,
located just two kilometres from their farmhouse.

Now the neighbourhood is truly beginning to expand. Ground has
already been broken on two bitumen upgraders and another 10 are
slated to begin construction between 2008 and 2010.

With extraction from the tar sands slated to quadruple over the next
two decades, the demand for local upgrader production has recently
become much more intense. BA Energy, Aux Sable, Total and Synenco are
only some on the list of international partners slated to invest over
$22 billion to bring upgrading capacity in the Heartland up to an
expected 1.5 million barrels per day by 2010.

Encouraged by hard lobbying by the counties and the Alberta
Industrial Heartland Association, they’ll join the current 40
industrial sites—including chemical plants, petrochemical refineries,
a fertilizer plant, pipelines and a single oil upgrader—already in
the area.

It’s a level of development that might finally drive the Chichaks
from their home after 30 years. With two accidents in the Shell
Scotford upgrader last year—and the hours that passed before
residents were notified anything was wrong—and this past November’s
sour gas leak, they’re ready to join the countless number of
residents who have already left the area due to health concerns.

“We’re ready to go; it’s not safe here for the residents anymore,”
Maureen explains when asked about the high emission levels this past
summer, the frustration audible in her voice. “No one wanted to claim
where the problem came from. They keep telling us they learn from
every incident and that things will be better, but it keeps happening
over and over again.”

And that’s with one upgrader in the area. The 10 new upgraders slated
to be in the process of production by 2009 will bring new
environmental and health challenges to an area already showing signs
of stress.

In 2003 the Industrial Heartland’s air, on a bad day, was rated to be
as bad as Mexico City’s, and in 2001 the Dow Chemical facility was
found to have the second-highest released level of dioxins in the

Heartland resident Kathy Radke says she can actually see the brownish
haze in the air and she can list the different chemical emissions she
smells in the air on certain days. She’s also witnessed the effects
in her cattle. “You can see their swollen joints, their hides are
quite dry. They’re not how they were, say, 20 years ago.”

Radke has had to get rid of her animals and shut down the dairy farm
because of the air quality. “It’s just not fair to raise animals in
an environment like that,” she insists.

Alberta Environment representative Jim Law insists that the
environmental pressures on the area will be dealt with in a new
cumulative-effects framework, which he believes will enable the
government to better monitor the impacts of development on the

“There’s so much industrial development you can’t work on a project-
by-project basis. This framework gives more certainty on what can be
accommodated in the region. It also sets out some very clear targets
for land and water.”

The framework, which was released Oct 2 of this year, is a pilot
program to take into account the cumulative effects of industry on
the air and watershed. Law explains the targets are set according to
how much industrial development the area can accommodate, and
individual industries coming to the area will have to fit within the
set targets for air emissions, water extraction and waste management.
However, the new targets are based on incoming industry in the area,
and assume the current Heartland industries are sustainable.

Law doesn’t believe the new targets will affect the number of
industrial developments in the area. “Industry knows what they need
to become a player in the area, it provides certainty for industry
and won’t affect the current proposals.”

to many residents, though, the new framework is just another
monitoring system with flaws. Residents don’t trust the Fort Air
Partnership—the air monitoring system paid for by industry—and with
the water task force of the cumulative-effects framework composed
almost entirely of members paid by industry, many don’t see it as
much of an improvement.
The water committee’s report states that their goal is “no further
deterioration of water quality, and ultimately, that there will be an
improvement of the current conditions.” Based on the evidence from
other parts of the province, they have their work cut out for them.

Oil extraction in the Athabasca tar sands has had massive
implications for the Athabasca water system, resulting in a
“marginal” rating of the river after it passes through the tar sands.
It’s a problem that led University of Alberta professor and water
expert Dr David Schindler to call for a moratorium on tar sands
operations due to their impact on the Athabasca.

Residents fear that similar effects in water quality could be seen in
the North Saskatchewan in the near future. As the North Saskatchewan
River winds through the Heartland, the current and proposed upgraders
will draw an estimated 104 billion litres from the river annually,
according to Alberta Environment data. A recent study commissioned by
the counties of Sturgeon and Strathcona estimated that it will cost
$1 billion to supply the amount of water required for the intense
process of refining bitumen when production reaches the target of 1.5
million barrels per day.

Water expert and member of the Onoway River Valley Conservation
Association Mike Northcott believes there needs to be more
independent arms-length research in the area to really make a
difference in ensuring future water quality in the area.

“They don’t have the people to enforce the laws that exist. At a time
when our environment needs us the most, it’s not being financed as it
should be.”
Northcott says that his experience in defending watersheds and
providing environmental information at consultations has led him to
the conclusion that governance needs to return to the grassroots for
there to be meaningful changes in environmental protection.

“We need to bring the decision making back to the people who are
directly affected to control whether or not these projects are on
their land.”

The need for greater local control over development decisions is
echoed by residents who, after attending some 50 meetings a year, say
they’re finding an empty return from consultations.

“We know no matter what they say they’re going to be approved. The
people who live here, they don’t really count,” says Radke, who has
participated in several consultations and an Energy and Utilities
Board hearing.

It’s a frustration that has compelled many to leave the area, an
option Radke says she might consider if she could find a buyer for
her land.

“There’s only a handful of us left now,” she laments. “The others had
an opportunity to sell and that was the best thing they could do.”
She’d like to see an area around the Heartland that simply has no
people in it, an option that is unlikely given that the city of Fort
Saskatchewan is located within the Industrial Heartland.

Northcott points to the need for sustainable development, saying that
the rapid expansion of the tar sands is causing pressures across the
province and the residents and environment of the Industrial
Heartland are just the latest victim. He questions the need for
further expansion.

“If we don’t take all ... [the] information and effort we have today,
we’re going to end up with the reputation as being the largest
contaminator in the world,” he says. “That’s not what I’m going to
hand down to my children. If we have to slow it down, we need to slow
it down.” V

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